Seventies-era rock filled the Starline Social Club on Grand Avenue this past Memorial Day. But on the second floor in the kitchen, chefs Oscar Michel and Jake Weiss pumped out asparagus quesadillas and chicken mole tacos to the less-conventional sounds of Panda Bear’s Person Pitch. The aroma of house-made tortillas, which ballooned into spheres on a warm griddle, overwhelmed the tight cooking space. Michel pressed round masa balls into tortillas, and Weiss added dollops of everything from avocado-tomatillo salsa to pickled onions to the final products. A server hustled the final plates down flights of stairs, then hiked back up and returned to the kitchen: press more tortillas, fry more eggs, another order, repeat.
Such is the life of Michel and Weiss, otherwise known as in-demand Oakland pop-up Tacos Oscar. Just a couple days before the Starline gig, Michel and his crew were in nearby Port Costa, for a Memorial Day weekend gathering, slinging tacos on the sidewalk, which turned out to be their busiest day of sales in three years.
“I don’t think I left the tortilla griddle once — except to get more masa,” he explained while “carmelizing” some cheese directly on Starline’s flat-top grill, a technique he uses for his quesadillas.
Since its debut at a friend’s music studio party in 2014, Tacos Oscar has become one of the more notable pop-ups in the Bay. This is in part because of folks’ insatiable, borderline obsessive desire for street tacos, but also because of Michel and Weiss’ commitment to simplicity, quality ingredients — and fresh, warm, addictive tortillas.
Michel’s parents immigrated from Jalisco in the 1950s and met on a chicken farm in San Diego. Michel was raised in the eastern Los Angeles neighborhood of Whittier. “I grew up in a Mexican household, and we have beans and tortillas with every meal no matter what,” the 38-year-old recalled to the Express during an interview last week. “I was lucky enough to have a home-cooked meal every day, and to be able to watch my mom cook it.”
While attending UC Berkeley, he’d get homesick and call his mom and ask how to cook those beans. During this time, Michel also worked at Doña Tomás on Telegraph Avenue, where he was offered a job in the kitchen. “I was the ‘tortilla boy,’” he admitted. He made tortillas to order for each and every dinner plate. But the restaurant didn’t do tacos, though. “‘There’s no money for tacos,’” he said the owners told him.
“That’s kind of how I got the bug.”
Eventually, a buddy urged to him go into business for himself, even offering to help pay for the start-up costs. Michel bought gear from vendors at the Coliseum market, including a giant square plancha to griddle his masa tortillas. The initial investment was about $100.
[pullquote-2] Soon after, he gave away free braised chile verde tacos, with a “super simple salsa that his mom and grandma taught him” and pickled veggies, in West Oakland. “And people fucking went crazy,” he remembered. “My buddy and I counted the tips, and we got like $700.”
And so, Tacos Oscar was born.
Michel describes a taco-making philosophy that doesn’t deviate too far from the street food’s legacy. He says it’s important to remember that, no matter how interested one is in culinary craft, it’s just tacos. “We don’t try to experiment too much. We keep things pretty traditional,” he said. “My whole goal is to make super simple salsa and beans that I grew up eating. That’s my comfort food.”
But while Michel admits to being pretty hardcore about tradition in the early days, he now lets his partner Weiss experiment. For instance, at Starline, the duo served a snap-pea taco with cabbage, avocado, and a housemade peanut salsa made of star anise, Cuban coriander, and arbol chilies. They’ll also mess around with Sichuan peppers and intense chili oils, and play around with veggie and vegan options.
A Tacos Oscar taco runs bit more than the average street taco, which tends to go for about $2 a pop these days at place like Tacos Mi Rancho or Tacos Sinaloa. Michel charges a dollar more, on average, but he says he purchases organic eggs, and hand-presses each tortilla, which is made from scratch.
Nevertheless, he occasionally gets some grief, especially online, where pictures of visually appealing tacos has led to harassment. “I’ve had people troll me before, ‘You’re not fucking Mexican, white-boy tacos,” he said people wrote about him. His response: “‘I’m a fucking California dude. I grew up here. I’m Chicano.’”
[pullquote-1]“‘You’re really threatening me because I make tacos with fried eggs on them?’”
It’s no secret that, when it comes to appropriation, there are a lot of opinions out there — such as last week’s national discussion about a burrito pop-up in Portland that was accused of ripping off recipes from women in Mexico.
Michel understands “it’s good to be political when it comes to food,” and he empathizes with people’s passion. “But, at the same time, there’s just a lot of shit-talking that goes on [online], and I try to stay out of that,” he added.
Going forward, the two restaurateurs will have a lot on their plates: Plans to possibly open a brick-and-mortar location in the near future and, of course, regular pop-ups and summer festivals, including an appearance this Friday, June 2, at Temescal Brewing. Plus, their regular Starline pop-up, which is every second and fourth Monday, where he hopes to stay for the time being, dishing out braised meats. “And I’m still hand-pressing your tortilla to order.”
The next Tacos Oscar pop-up is this Friday, June 2, at Temescal Brewing, 4115 Telegraph Ave, Oakland. Learn more on Instagram: @TacosOscar.
Mole De Pollo Taco $3
Cicharos Vegan Taco $3
Fried Egg Taco $4
Quesadilla de Esparragos $5